Checklist for This Week's Top NBA Free-Agency Signings to Succeed

Matthew SchmidtFeatured ColumnistJuly 14, 2013

Checklist for This Week's Top NBA Free-Agency Signings to Succeed

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    With most of the big-name free agents already landing with their teams, it's time to begin taking stock of what each of them will need to do to be successful in their new uniforms.

    Talent alone isn't enough to succeed. You need to be able to fit within your ballclub's system and maintain a positive attitude throughout. You don't have to look any further than Dwight Howard's short-lived stint with the Los Angeles Lakers to find an example of a star who just could not get comfortable and experienced futility as a result.

    Each of these players are bound to have a significant impact on their new teams. However, if they don't work on certain things, their tenure may not be as fruitful as they would like.


    Stats are courtesy of unless noted otherwise. 

Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets

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    Build offensive repertoire

    One of the biggest—if not the biggest—knocks on Howard is his lack of an all-around game offensively. While he is certainly capable of scoring 20 points a night, many of those buckets come off dunks and garbage buckets. Howard does not have a reliable low-post game he can depend on, nor does he have a jump shot.

    James Harden and Jeremy Lin both love to operate in the pick-and-roll, so that means Howard is going to have to develop some semblance of consistency on the offensive end of the floor. That is not to say he needs to become Kevin Garnett or Tim Duncan, but he does need to put together a set of moves he can utilize.

    Wouldn't it be nice for the Houston Rockets if Howard were able to establish a mid-range jumper to use as a weapon in the screen-and-roll? Plus, with Harden and Lin being two players who rely heavily on dribble penetration, Howard may have to step out of the lane to create room. Having a solid jump shot would pay huge dividends in that regard.


    Disregard what people think

    Sometimes, the most significant problem with athletes is that they care too much about what the public's perception is of them. Howard needs to put that out of his mind in Houston. A large faction of basketball fans already think lowly of him anyway, so it's not like he has to worry about losing support.

    Howard just needs to start fresh with the Rockets. It's his third ballclub, an unusually large number for a young star, but for the first time in a few years, he seems happy. For him, that should be all that matters—that, and winning a championship with Harden and company.

    These Rockets may very well be the best squad he has ever played on, so that should be more than enough to brush off the scathing opinions of the public.

Josh Smith, Detroit Pistons

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    Stop shooting three-pointers

    During the 2009-10 season, Josh Smith enjoyed the best season of his career. He shot a lifetime-best 50.5 percent from the floor and recorded a career-high .155 win shares per 48 minutes. The secret? Smith only attempted seven three-pointers that year.

    Then, for some inexplicable reason, Smith reverted back to his old ways and began firing away from downtown during the 2010-11 campaign, a trend that continued right through 2012-13. Not surprisingly, his productivity dipped.

    Now that Smith is in Detroit, he must channel whatever mindset he had in 2009-10 and concentrate on taking the ball to the basket. He will be playing small forward with the Pistons, and with Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond occupying low block, the floor spacing will obviously be less than desirable. However, there is a way Detroit can spin that to its advantage, and it's by dominating the paint.

    If J-Smoove would just stop launching perimeter jumpers, and instead, put the ball on the floor, the Pistons could end up with the best interior attack in the league.


    Become a leader

    Smith now finds himself in an unusual role: team veteran.

    With the Atlanta Hawks, Smith essentially grew up with the likes of Al Horford and Joe Johnson, and they were all able to make the playoffs together. Now, Smith is one of the only players on the Pistons with postseason experience, meaning he will have to take on more of a leadership role than he ever has before.

    The 26-year-old has never been the type to take control of a locker room, but he is going to have to with Detroit. Thankfully, he now has Chauncey Billups on board as well, but regardless, Smith must become a mentor to Monroe, Drummond, Brandon Knight and the like—whether or not that is something Josh can handle is the question.

Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks

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    Turn the Hawks into a halfcourt team

    With the aforementioned Josh Smith heading to Detroit, the Hawks have lost their best transition player. They have replaced him with Paul Millsap, a forward hardly known for getting out on the break. Millsap is someone who operates primarily out of the halfcourt set, and he does a pretty darn good job of it. He possesses a solid low-post game and a good mid-range jumper and is a very good passer, giving Atlanta more flexibility offensively.

    Now, the Hawks can do something they were never able to regularly do during Smith's tenure: consistently generate points while using the 24-second shot clock. The tandem of Millsap and Al Horford down low has the potential to be absolutely lethal.

    With Atlanta matching the Milwaukee Bucks' offer sheet to Jeff Teague (per Chris Vivlamore of the Atlantic Journal Constitution), one can now argue that the Hawks will actually be a better team in 2013-14 than they were this past year.


    Rebound, rebound, rebound

    Atlanta wasn't exactly a behemoth on the boards in 2012-13, ranking 28th in rebounds per game. Millsap will have to play a part in changing that.

    It won't come without some improvement on Millsap's part, though, as he wasn't much better than Smith on the glass this past season (Millsap posted a total rebound percentage of 13.7 percent to Smith's 13.6). Fortunately, the Hawks can take some solace in the fact that Millsap owns a lifetime total rebound percentage of 15.2 percent while Smith's is only 13.8.

Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors

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    Prepare for a reduction in minutes

    Unless the Golden State Warriors plan on using a lot of small-ball by putting Harrison Barnes at the 4, the 37.4 minutes per game Andre Iguodala has averaged over the course of his career are going to decrease in 2013-14.

    Before Iguodala signed, the Warriors already had one of the better wing duos in the league with Barnes and Klay Thompson. With Iguodala now in the fold, either Barnes or Thompson will be relegated to the bench, and we know that whoever gets demoted is still going to see a large chunk of playing time.

    Being that Iguodala will almost certainly see his minutes dip, he is going to have to become accustomed to some rather inconsistent burn. He can either use the reduced floor time to his advantage, as it will keep him fresher, or he can allow it to throw a wrench into his productivity.

    Knowing Iguodala, the former is much more likely.


    Stop shooting three-pointers, a la Josh Smith

    Iguodala took 287 triples in 2012-13, hitting on only 31.7 percent of them. He is a career 32.9 percent shooter from beyond the arc, and outside of a strange 2011-12 campaign where he shot 39.4 from distance, most of his seasons saw him fall around that 32 percent range.

    The Denver Nuggets lacked outside shooting last year, so, perhaps, that is a valid explanation for why the 29-year-old attempted so many threes. The same reasoning can be posed for his incessant three-jacking during his time with the Philadelphia 76ers.

    Now that Iguodala is in Golden State with Stephen Curry and Thompson, that excuse is no longer plausible.

    Iguodala should focus mainly on defense and facilitating and allow Curry, Thompson, Barnes and the rest of the Warriors' crew to do the work offensively. I would say that it would also be nice if Iguodala attacked the rim and tried to get to the charity stripe, but judging from his free-throw percentage of 57.4 percent last season, that may not be the best idea.

J.J. Hickson, Denver Nuggets

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    Get better defensively

    The Portland Trail Blazers ranked last in points in the paint against this past season, and that was in no small part due to J.J. Hickson's defense—or lack thereof—inside. Hickson is now joining the Denver Nuggets, a team that already has defensive struggles as it is. Obviously, an improvement on that area of the floor is key for Hickson.

    Does this mean that Hickson needs to turn into an elite interior defender? No, and he probably doesn't even have the capability to become such a force anyway. However, what he does need to do is provide more of an effort on that end, and given that he is blessed with great athleticism, there is no reason why he can't be at least adequate defensively.


    Play every year like it's a contract year

    Hickson enjoyed what was quite easily the best season of his career in 2012-13, averaging a double-double, shooting 56.2 percent from the floor and posting .142 win shares per 48 minutes.

    Was this the 24-year-old breaking out, or was Hickson's impressive campaign merely the product of the fact that he was up for a new contract this summer?

    Given that Hickson is still very young and is still improving, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. After all, he has demonstrated that he has the talent to be a solid player in the past.

    That being said, if Hickson gets off to a slow start in 2013-14, he'll begin to hear the murmurs about him possibly only playing well this past season to get paid.

    All things considered, you have to love the deal Denver got him on. Three years and $15 million for a nightly double-double threat? Talk about a bargain.

Andrew Bynum, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Stay healthy

    I almost wanted to put that subheading in size 42, red font.

    There really isn't too much risk here for the Cleveland Cavaliers; of the $24 million they will be giving Andrew Bynum over the course of two years, only $6 million of it is guaranteed. However, for Bynum's sake, he needs to remain on the floor, or else, his NBA career is going to be an incredibly short one. That means no bowling, Andrew.

    Seriously, though, if Bynum can stay healthy, the Cavaliers have an awesome, awesome foundation. Bynum, Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett? Sounds great to me.


    Listen to Mike Brown

    Remember when Mike Brown benched Bynum for taking a pretty silly three-pointer back when he was coaching the Los Angeles Lakers during the 2011-12 season? And then remember how Bynum took a subtle shot at Brown when he said he was "getting his Zen on"?

    Well, that all needs to stop in Cleveland.

    Bynum is now at a point in his career where he cannot afford to act in such puerile ways. Instead of launching threes and disrespecting his head coach, he needs to work his rear end off to at least begin to resemble the player many anticipated he would become.

    We have seen flashes of Bynum's ability in the past. He just hasn't done it enough. A lot of that has to do with the whole "he can't stay healthy" thing, though.

Andrei Kirilenko, Brooklyn Nets

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    Andrei Kirilenko is climbing aboard a Brooklyn Nets train that is already loaded with talent, and he has a future Hall of Famer in front of him in Paul Pierce. So, those 31.8 minutes per game that Kirilenko averaged with the Minnesota Timberwolves are probably not going to be there with the Nets.

    Fortunately for Kirilenko, he has come off the bench in the past. During the 2008-09 season with the Utah Jazz, Kirilenko only started 10 of the 67 contests he participated in, so this is not uncharted territory. However, those Jazz weren't as deep as this Brooklyn ballclub, so the 27.9 minutes he logged nightly that year will not all be available this time around.

    The upside here is Kirilenko is such a versatile and non-demanding player, a decrease in minutes shouldn't be an issue for him. He will mainly be asked to defend, an area where he has always been very effective. This is a guy who has averaged 1.9 blocks and 1.4 steals over the course of his career, so defense is absolutely a strong suit for the Russian.


    Be ready to defend the best of the best

    When the Nets play the likes of the Miami Heat, New York Knicks, etc., Kirilenko will be the guy asked to defend the LeBron Jameses and Carmelo Anthonys of the world. Thanks to the overwhelming amount of talent Brooklyn will have on the offensive side of the ball, Kirilenko will be able to expend nearly all of his energy on the defensive end.

    Kirilenko may not be as bulky as a James or an Anthony, but he has the length and the savvy to make life difficult for players of their ilk.

Monta Ellis, Dallas Mavericks

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    Turn the clock back to 2007

    Over the years, Monta Ellis has developed a reputation for being a bit of a chucker, but he wasn't always that way.

    If you go back to the 2007-08 campaign, Ellis shot an incredible 53.1 percent from the floor and posted a true shooting percentage of 58 percent. Wow. Go back a year further to 2006-07, and Ellis shot a solid 47.5 percent and compiled a true shooting percentage of 54.5.

    So, what the heck happened?

    In 2012-13, Ellis hit on a rather underwhelming 41.6 percent of his field-goal tries, his lowest mark since his rookie year. The season before that, he connected on 43.3 percent of his shot attempts.

    Ellis needs to go back and watch some film of 2007 to see what he was doing differently back then. Just looking at the stats, he only attempted 15.1 field goals per game in 2007-08, over two full shot attempts lower than the 17.5 he averaged this past season.

    Obviously, Monta's shot selection was a lot better five or six years ago than it is now, and that's not how it usually works.


    Accept the fact that this is Dirk Nowitzki's team

    Perhaps the biggest problem with Ellis is that he never played alongside of an experienced star who was willing to put him in his place. He was among a bunch of youngsters in Golden State, and with Milwaukee, he was sharing the basketball with his essential clone in Brandon Jennings.

    Now, Ellis will be playing next to a legend in Dirk Nowitzki, a man who knows all about winning. Maybe this will turn Ellis around?

    For that to happen, Monta immediately needs to understand that he can't be launching 17.5 shots per game. He is not the No. 1 option here: Nowitzki is.

    If Ellis learns to keep himself in check, the Dallas Mavericks may have made a very nice signing with the 6'3" guard.